Published: June 8, 2020 By

Claire Tetro studies sociology at CU Boulder. This story was written as part of a package of reporting on COVID-19 by students in Assistant Professor Christine Larson's class, Writing for the Media. All stories have been lightly edited for style and updated based on new information. 

On March 10, as Emily Stephens, a college student studying in Prague, took the train back to her dorm after a night out, she got the email that changed everything. CU Boulder had suspended all abroad programs in Europe as a result of COVID-19. The university requested the immediate departure of all international students. By the time Stephens arrived back at her dorm that night, her classmates had packed up almost everything, including their abroad experience.

“Literally getting back to the dorm was so traumatic. People were screaming, people were crying, they were trying to book flights. It was just so much chaos in one setting, I couldn’t even handle it,” Stephens said. 

Packing Up in a Hurry

Stephens, a junior at the university, is just one of the many students who study abroad each year. According to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, during the 2018-19 school year, over 1 million American students studied abroad. This spring, most found themselves sent home as a result of COVID-19. Now, students who are hoping to study abroad, as well as program administrators, are wondering what the future holds.

Taylor Badt, an employee of the Education Abroad Office at CU Boulder, spoke about the uncertainty of future abroad programs and the precautionary measures students and universities should take.

“Have a backup plan. We don’t know what life has in store next week, let alone in four to five months,” Badt said. “I know that our office is still hopeful to send people abroad in the fall, and I think we’ll be able to send people abroad in the spring for sure.”

On March 13, President Donald Trump issued his first travel ban on Europe, advising all U.S. citizens to avoid international travel.

Italy was one of the first countries to send students home. Soon after, students in Spain came home and Stephens knew it was only a matter of time before she would be next. After the eventual shut down of the Czech Republic, Trump issued a travel ban on the U.K. and Ireland on March 16, sending the remaining students home. 

“It was always a thought in all of our heads,” Stephens said. “We didn’t know anything was going to get short until literally two days before we all left.”

After March 13, when Trump issued his travel ban on European countries, American students abroad were being urged to come home as soon as possible. The U.S. Department of State warned students of the unpredictable circumstances, quarantine, and sudden travel restrictions that were taking place as a result of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that all institutes of higher education consider postponing or canceling all upcoming education abroad programs. Throughout March, the CDC continued to encourage all colleges and universities to consider asking students to return to their home countries in the days following the travel ban.

According to a 2020 survey including 234 institutional respondents, the Institute of International Education found that about one-third of institutions have encouraged students and faculty to cancel or postpone any international travel. It also reported that universities have canceled all upcoming travel to areas with a “Level 3 Travel Advisory” from the CDC. This travel advisory encourages all individuals to reconsider travel. 

CU Boulder has dedicated a page on its Education Abroad website to COVID-19. The university suspended all spring 2020 abroad programs on a rolling basis in response to the CDC’s declaration of “Warning Level 3." This warning level encourages all U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel. The university also followed guidance from the Department of State, which issued a “Global Health Advisory Level 4: Do Not Travel," indicating that individuals should avoid all international travel.

It only took three emails and two days for Stephens’ abroad experience to come to an unexpected end. She received the fateful email on Monday, March 10, and was on a plane by Thursday morning. As Stephens flew home, she left behind her spring semester abroad before she even got to experience it.

“Honestly, the biggest thing I missed out on was seeing Prague in the spring, with all the flowers blooming. They literally started blooming four days after I left,” Stephens said. “That’s probably one of the most depressing parts, not being able to see how pretty Prague and Europe are in the spring, because that was what I was most looking forward to.”

Alyssa Grubstein, a junior at CU Boulder, studied abroad in London this past spring. As London was one of the last locations to send students home, Grubstein was already prepared for the panic and knew it was only a matter of time before she would be flying home.

“No one really thought it was a big deal until Trump made the travel ban. We started getting emails from London saying they were going to start closing restaurants and pubs,” Grubstein said. “We were like, ‘We got to leave––like, it’s time to go.’ It was a little hectic but it didn’t get too bad until we got home.”

While Stephens struggled to come to terms with her abandoned semester abroad, Grubstein felt fortunate that she got home safe.

“I was happy to come home, but also sad," Grubstien said. "I’d rather be stuck in my own country than some country my family can’t get me out of. So here we are."

An Anchor in the Plan: Semester at Sea

Not only is international travel now banned, but cruise ships are now suffering the consequences of COVID-19 as well. One particular program, Semester at Sea, docked its ship early this past spring semester in response to the virus.

According to the CDC, cruise ships pose a significant risk for the rapid spread of disease as people spend time close together and travel to many different countries. For these reasons, the U.S. government issued a “No Sail Order” on March 14 for cruise ships in waters of U.S. jurisdiction. The “No Sail Order” prevents new passengers from boarding cruise ships, as well as suspending all future cruise ship operations. The CDC extended this order on April 15.

Marjorie Seawell, a member of the board of directors for Semester at Sea, relied on the decisions of the board during the spring semester.

“We modified the spring voyage in January when we heard of COVID in China. We didn’t go to China, and we were planning to,” Seawell said. “We ended up having to end the voyage early in Cape Town and just bring kids home in the middle of March, which I’m really glad we did. They finished their courses online for spring semester.”

On May 12, Semester at Sea announced that they'd be canceling their fall 2020 voyage. Applications for the spring 2021 voyage remain open.

The Future of Education Abroad

As of June, CU Boulder has suspended some study abroad programs, including in New Zealand and Singapore. The university says it will continue to monitor other fall programs, while spring programs currently continuing to be offered.

Whatever happens, Badt is confident that the education abroad office is now prepared for similar events in the future.

“I think moving forward, there’s going to be a lot more contingency plans. This really set a precedent––one I think Education Abroad handled really well,” Badt said. “Now, it will be in our insurance, and our courses will be structured more to have an easier online transition, I believe.”

However, many prospective students are struggling to stay positive about their future plans.

Jessica Larson, a sophomore at CU Boulder, hopes to go abroad in fall 2020, but for her, reality has begun to set in.

“It’s so annoying how everyone is so pessimistic about it, but I know they’re just trying to make me prepared for the fact that I probably won’t get to go,” Larson said.

Although students have struggled to remain positive during this time, some students have taken the time to find their gratitude.

Back in her hometown, Grubstein has had time to reflect on her abroad experience. She no longer sees it as something she missed out on, but something that changed her life for the better, she says.

“I’m really grateful for my abroad experience, and what I got to do through it. I'm sad that it got cut short but I’m just really grateful I got the opportunity," she said. "I think that if anybody gets the opportunity to ever go abroad, I feel like they should definitely take it. Because it was the best experience of my life."

Photo by yousef alfuhigi on Unsplash